What appeared to be damning video showing a Tesla Model S flipping over and then catching fire turns out to have been completely faked by Swiss-based AXA Insurance.
In a press release issued by AXA last week, the insurance company stated during a test the Model S flipped “and caught fire.” But it turns out the sedan was launched into the air as it was propelled over a series of obstacles meant to get it to flip. As for the battery fire, it was triggered by pyrotechnics hidden on the vehicle. The test car didn’t even have its battery-pack installed.
The incident recalls a notorious case in which Dateline NBC used pyrotechnics to fake the explosion of a Chevrolet Silverado to support its report of alleged safety problems.
Once the latest subterfuge was uncovered by German website 24auto.de, AXA released a statement claiming it removed the Tesla’s battery pack and faked the fire because, “When simulating an accident scenario where a battery-powered car catches fire, various safety precautions are taken in order to protect spectators.” It finally issued an apology Thursday for the “false impression” it created.
A pre-determined outcome
There’s no question Tesla has taken criticism for safety-related issues, including both problems with its Autopilot technology and some crash-related battery fires. On the other hand, products like the Model S have received solid praise from the likes of Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the latter giving the sedan its highest “Top Safety Pick+” rating.
Nonetheless, AXA was clearly pre-determined to tar-and-feather not only Tesla but electric vehicles, in general.
“AXA Switzerland’s statistics show that drivers of electric vehicles cause 50% more collisions with damage to their own vehicles than drivers of conventional vehicles with combustion engines,” the insurance company said in its initial release.
“What the statistics also show,” it continued, “is that drivers of more powerful electric vehicles cause damage to either their own or someone else’s vehicle more frequently. Our aim with this year’s Crash Tests was to draw attention to these insights from our statistics and — at the same time — raise awareness of the risks that can potentially arise with accidents involving battery-powered cars.”
The Tesla Model S actually did well in the crash
Ironically, the faked test didn’t even prove what AXA set out to show. For one thing, the company confirmed that the crash didn’t cause “the type of damage to the undercarriage that would be likely to spark a battery fire as the images would appear to suggest.”
In its apology, AX acknowledged that its communications team “should have made explicit mention” the Tesla actually came through in pretty good shape. In fact, a closer look at the images show that, even after flipping over, the sedan’s roof was virtually undamaged.
If anything, the test could have been used to underscore why the Tesla Model S received the top rating from the IIHS. Additionally, AXA now concedes one of the most common concerns about battery-electric vehicles is far overstated.
“Fortunately, fires are very rare in electric cars as well as in conventional combustion engines,” it acknowledged.
Not the first time this has happened
This isn’t the first time that a video crew used pyrotechnics to raise concerns about the safety of a vehicle.
Easily the most notorious case, until now, involved a November 1992 episode on the TV show Dateline NBC. The show meant to demonstrate alleged safety problems with Chevrolet Silverado pickups equipped with “sidesaddle” gas tanks. It showed a pickup exploding into flames after being rammed from the side.
GM Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, a former lawyer, responded in a dramatic, courtroom-style presentation carefully revealing how the NBC team had used pyrotechnics to fake the explosion. In February 1993, NBC facing a major lawsuit, Dateline anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips apologized for the “unscientific demonstration.”
Tesla has not yet said whether it will take action against AXA. The carmaker has not responded to a request for comment from TheDetroitBureau.com.